Essays and Arguments, Section Ten
[This text, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, released May 2000]
10.0 Writing Arguments About Literary Works
Some courses, particularly in Liberal Studies, Philosophy, and English, require argumentative essays about literature; that is, the assignments will call for an evaluative response in the form of an essay about another book. This task is difficult to carry out if you are not entirely clear what the essay is supposed to do. This section focuses, first, on that issue and, secondly, on various ways you can address the question of organizing a suitable argument.
Engaging in discussions and arguments about books (and other works) is a very common form of human interaction, something we routinely carry out for pleasure in our coffee and pub conversations or read about in the newspapers. It stems from a human desire to engage our imaginations in other people's visions of the world, to discuss them with others, and to evaluate them, especially in conversations.
Such discussions and arguments obviously emerge out of the interaction which occurs when we read another text, and the quality of what we have to say is going to depend in large part on the quality of our reading. Thus, in order to clarify just how one might set about constructing arguments about texts, it is necessary first to say a few things about reading, particularly about intelligent reading or what is called in the following section reading beneath the surface.
These paragraphs deal mainly with works written in prose. A later section concerns itself with writing arguments about lyric poetry, a form of literature which can cause special difficulties for students.
10.1 Reading Beneath the Surface
Careful reading, the kind which gets you beneath the surface of a book, is an important skill which students continue to develop throughout their undergraduate program. One of the main goals of those courses which require arguments about literary texts is to encourage the students to become better readers.
In courses which deal with literary texts, the books we study fall, very roughly, into two groups: some tell fictional stories (novels, epic poems, plays) and some present arguments. Some texts, of course, do both (and these books are often relatively more complex because of that). As we read, therefore, we tend to select a main emphasis arising out of the book (story or argument) and then to focus upon either the creation of an imaginary world in which particular people act out a story in a specific environment (e.g., the Odyssey) or on the presentation of a structured argument about philosophical, political, or scientific issues (e.g., On Liberty, short argumentative essays). This division may sometimes be simplistic, but it makes a useful starting point.
Once we begin to sense that the book we are reading is mainly a fictional narrative (i.e., a story), then, if our imagination is at all engaged with the world of the fiction, we will find ourselves to some extent in the position of a judge. We will be following the actions of certain people in particular places and situations, and we will almost certainly develop a distribution of sympathy for the characters (some we like, some we do not like). This process of getting sympathetically involved in the fictional world is, of course, one of the major pleasures of reading stories.
Hence, our first entry into an intelligent appreciation of a fictional narrative will usually be a reaction to the characters. William Empson once observed that all characters are on trial in a civilized narrative. This is a useful observation to bear in mind, since it places us in the position of a judge and invites us to render a series of verdicts on the fictional people we encounter. Out of this we can normally construct many useful arguments based on why we like, dislike, or have a mixed reaction to one or more characters (as we so often do after seeing a film).
All this is natural enough, but there are some initial dangers to avoid. In order to judge the characters fairly (and, in the process to extend our own imaginative powers), we need to understand them. And that will require a good deal more than simply translating them from the text into our immediate world and applying criteria from the world around us. Eventually, of course, we may want to do something like that, but before rushing to judgment, we need to take the time to sort out why the characters are behaving the way they are. This caveat is particularly important when we are dealing with stories which come from a culture very different from the one around us (either because the stories are very old, or because they come from non-western cultures, or both), since what the characters do and believe in such stories will almost certainly strike us as odd in some ways.
In close intelligent reading we need to do a great deal more than simply follow and judge immediately what characters do. In many of the stories we read, for example, characters do things which, by modern standards, are odd, abhorrent, sexist, self-destructive, incomprehensible, or lunatic. If we do not penetrate beneath these actions to explore the reasons--the beliefs which prompt the action--then much of the book will remain concealed from us. Thus, we should not be too quick to impose our twentieth-century judgments upon such matters until we have wrestled somewhat with the underlying beliefs about the world which inform the actions of the characters.
Another way of putting the same point is to stress the old saying that human beings imitate in action their vision of the nature of things. We will not properly understand the significance of what characters in fictions do unless we grasp something of their vision of reality which guides their actions. So if we find ourselves intrigued, enthralled, disgusted, confused, or otherwise moved by how people behave in a fiction, we can profitably ask ourselves: Why are they acting in this way? How is this action linked to what they and their society believe about the world?
We should not be too quick, as I have said, to judge the case by modern standards, no matter how strange or unacceptable we find the action or opinion. We need to take the time to ponder an answer or series of possible answers, which must come from the context of belief given in the fiction itself. That does not mean that we have to refuse to judge the characters but rather that we have to understand them as fully as possible before judging them.
In assessing questions of this sort in a story, we should pay particular attention to the setting of the action, the world in which the characters live, and, above all, to what they believe about it (e.g., its origins, the possibilities of change in it, the divine ruling powers which have set that world up or control it, and so on). For example, if the characters believe that the world is governed by irrational, hostile, unpredictable, and amoral forces and if they live in a very demanding environment, their standards of behaviour will probably vary considerably from those who believe that the world runs according to moral, rational, and benevolent laws and whose immediate surroundings are fertile and secure. Whether we share the same beliefs or not, it is important for us to get a grasp of the world view developed in the fiction. Otherwise our understanding of the characters' motives will be very tenuous.
Consider an example. The Old Testament narrative of the Israelites leaving Egypt and living for years in the desert presents a picture of human beings following a very demanding code of life in a frequently very aggressive way and demonstrating many characteristics which we do not particularly approve of in modern North American society and held together by strict rules we would almost certainly not welcome. All that makes their culture very strange to us, and it is easy enough to start criticizing. However, before simply imposing on the Israelites or on their God or on their leaders our own immediate values, we should reflect more deeply on what they believe, why they believe it, what understanding of the world they derive from such a belief, and, finally, how that understanding of the world endorses certain actions rather than others.
In going through this process of intelligent reading we should not impose on the fiction ideas which we may have which are irrelevant to the story, for example, our understanding of Christian interpretations of this part of the Old Testament or our feelings about present day Arab-Israeli conflict or our awareness of modern debates about sexism. We cannot, of course, simply empty our minds of everything we know and believe, but we can try to avoid letting all that modern consciousness too quickly and peremptorily determine our evaluation of the story.
Remember that one of the great values of reading fictions from cultures very different from our own is that the visions of experience portrayed in these fictions can act, if the stories are imaginatively exciting, as a challenge to our modern beliefs (which may, after all, be quite limiting). We cannot transport ourselves back to Ancient Israel or rid ourselves of our modern consciousness; we should not on that account drag the text forcefully into the modern age, as if it had been written last week. We have to meet it half way, and let the strange vision meet and enter into a conversation with our modern consciousness. We may then discover some important things about ourselves, as we try to come to terms with the value of the fiction.
For this reason, there are two important approaches to avoid when dealing with a strange text, if one's interest is in an intelligent evaluative argument. The first mistake is that of the scholar who says that we can only understand this work properly if we immerse ourselves in the facts surrounding its production (the biography of the author and the full cultural context of the work). The second mistake is that of the historically or culturally unimaginative reader who says that we can evaluate it without taking into account its difference from us. The challenge of intelligent reading requires us to combine the best features of both of these approaches, without letting either one take over the entire process.
This, of course, is a important justification for the value of reading: letting ourselves be challenged by the unfamiliar, not so that we will be converted to an unfamiliar belief system (although we might be) but so that the challenge forces us to re-examine our own values and beliefs. If we use the beliefs we bring to the fiction as a quick way of summing it up, of judging it, of holding it at arm's length, then that vital challenge cannot take place.
Thus, in reading the text of a fiction, we should inform ourselves as best we can about the vision of life it presents (in particular by examining the belief systems which prompt the characters to act and feel the way they do) and then explore whether that particular way of looking at the world has any value. We might usefully ask ourselves questions like the following: What useful things would people derive from such a vision of life? How would it enable them to cope? How would I feel in such a culture (can I see any important advantages or benefits that such a vision possesses which mine does not, or not to the same extent? We may decide, after letting the text speak to us as eloquently as possible, that the vision of life it offers is unacceptable, limiting, immoral, sentimental, or whatever. But we need to give it a fair hearing first and reflect upon why we feel about it the way we do.
In the same way, if we are reading a book which is mainly an argument (e.g., a work of moral or political philosophy), we need to attend to more than just the details of the argument or a specific list of recommendations or conclusions which emerges from it. In many cases, the most important part of an argumentative work in politics or philosophy is not the particular details of what the author is recommending but rather the method of the argument.
The issue of the method is a crucial point: the greatest, most interesting, and most influential thinkers are not necessarily those who came up with "answers"; they are rather those who redefined the issues, the vocabulary, and the style of important arguments. If all we are interested in is their answers to designated problems, then we will miss what matters most.
This matter is worth stressing again. When we come to class, we often want to concentrate on the most obvious recommendations developed in an argument, those details which prompt an immediate response (e.g., Plato's recommendations about the treatment of women, Hobbes' view of the sovereign having absolute power, Rousseau's treatment of individuality, Marx's views on the inevitability of the class war, and so on). These are interesting and important. But until we arrive at some understanding of why the writers are making these proposals, of how they reached them, that is, of the assumptions and methodology which have led up to them, then we may be missing the most important part of the text.
Of particular importance in any argumentative text is the opening section, in which the writer typically establishes certain assumptions about the nature of the world and about the appropriate methods for discovering how best to deal with it. We need to read very slowly and carefully here in order to establish a clear sense early in the text of the starting points for the entire argument: these will include the basic assumptions about nature, human life, and the proper ways of reasoning. Useful questions we might ask include the following: What does the writer assume as axiomatic (self-evident) about our human nature and the cosmos? How does the divine fit in this vision? How does the writer define the key term(s) he is introducing (especially about human nature)? In asking the questions he does about the world, what does the writer reveal as central to his method of enquiry? What does the writer introduce as evidence or logic to advance the argument (and what does he exclude)? What does the writer recognize as the criterion for judging good from bad arguments? What is the writer's attitude to traditional systems of belief? And, of particular importance, what views of the world is he reacting against and why?
In many arguments, once these starting points and the basic methodology are conceded, the rest of the case is relatively persuasive. A disagreement with a particular recommendation or conclusion at the end of the argument may stem from something latent in one of the initial assumptions to which we have too easily given assent.
Most books which develop arguments also at some point attack some alternative views (in many cases, the books were written in direct response to a prevailing belief or series of beliefs). So it extremely useful to pay very close attention to those passages where an argumentative writer directs hostile criticism against an eminent opponent (e.g., Plato's attack on Homer, Aristotle's criticism of Plato, Hobbes' attack on scriptural interpretations, Galileo's contempt for his Aristotelian opponents, Wollstonecraft's remarks on Rousseau, Freud's dismissal of communism, and so on). If we keep posing the question "Just what is this writer objecting to and why?" we will often have a direct entry into something really central to the argument. And such a question often makes a particularly useful essay topic.
10.2 From Reading to Shaping An Evaluative Argument
Building on Our Own Reactions
The most valuable help to constructing an oral or written argument about a text is our own reactions (which will vary from one reader to another). This sounds obvious enough, but it's an important point: we should develop our arguments out of how we feel after we have dealt with the book as honestly and intelligently as we can. The very best way to sort out how you feel about a book is to discuss it with others, testing your initial tentative views against theirs and exploring together where certain interpretative possibilities lead. The value of this social process of interpretation, especially as a means of fostering initial insights and argumentative possibilities, cannot be overstressed.
One good technique to help us probe beneath the surface details to the point where we are thinking about creating an argument is constantly to examine our own reactions to the text. If we find ourselves confused, irritated, excited, challenged, or bored with part of the text, we can ask ourselves why (and we should re-read such passages with particular care). Can we isolate some key features of the argument, style, characterization, belief, and so on which the book presents, in such a way that our own response to the book becomes more intelligible to us? It may be worth spending considerable time on a relatively small portion of the text (getting assistance from others, where necessary). If we can come to understand one confusing or exciting or repellent section of, say, Plato's Republic or Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams or Twain's Huckleberry Finn, then we will have learned something important about the entire work.
Often a strongly negative reaction to a text can provide an important learning opportunity. We may sometimes find ourselves turning away from a book in total disagreement (e.g., over Aristotle's discussion of slavery, the killing in the Iliad, Rousseau's discussion of marriage in Emile, de Beauvoir's view of female sexuality, and so on). If we have such a response, then we should not be too quick simply to write the text off. We should rather take the time to explore the reasons for our own response and some possible reasons for the author's particular treatment of that subject. We do not have to agree with the various writers: our exploration may well confirm our first snap judgment. However, we should make the effort to understand the sources of the author's vision and of our own rejection of it, before we finally make up our own mind. That process will often generate imaginative insights useful for an evaluative discussion.
If we have a really strongly negative reaction to a text or to a part of it, we might want to set ourselves a challenging assignment: defend the writer's vision of experience on this point. For example, suppose we find Marx's argument in the Communist Manifesto unacceptable because, as good liberals, we cannot agree with what he has to say about the middle-class family. If we want to challenge our argumentative powers, we could try to set up an argument in which we support Marx on that point, in which, in other words, we try to justify that conclusion on the basis of the principles Marx introduces. That will force us to come to grips with what Marx is really saying in a new, exciting, and challenging way.
Even if you are writing an essay critiquing Marx's views of the family, an important part of your case might be at some point giving Marx's argument a fair presentation, acknowledging the strengths of it, and then demonstrating its inadequacies (a technique this handbook discussed earlier under the label Acknowledging the Opposition).
The point is that you should never dismiss something merely on the ground that it immediately offends what you believe. Use that reaction to engage the argument, to seek to understand it, and, if possible, to expose where it goes wrong (or what it overlooks).
As your undergraduate education progresses, you should find yourselves tempted to compare a book you are studying with one you have studied earlier in the same course or perhaps in a different course. This activity is an important learning technique (which will come into play in seminar discussions). You should get into the habit from time to time of calling attention to the way in which a book you are reading is similar to or quite different from an earlier one. And you might like to consider such a comparison as the basis for an evaluative argument about the two books.
At a very basic level, these comparisons might start from a simple personal preference (e.g., for Mozart over Beethoven, for Rousseau over Mill, for McKinnon over Rich, for Odysseus over Achilles, and so on). Working from such an immediately personal response and exploring it further in order to understand it better, you will often be able to come to a fuller appreciation of both texts. Some questions you might like to ask yourself when you find yourself making such comparisons might be some of the following: How are these works similar? How are they different? Why do I prefer one to the other? What criteria am I using to make this judgment? What would I say in order to persuade someone else to share my view? Can I see why someone might prefer the one I think inferior? Out of such questions, some interesting and provocative argumentative stances can emerge.
Developing intelligent comparisons between different works is one of the great tools of criticism, informed discussion, and cultural enrichment. Learning to develop such comparisons will also help to remind us that just because we have finished with one work and are moving on to another, that is no reason for setting the first one aside. As we progress through Liberal Studies, English, and Philosophy courses, we are continuing and enriching a life-long conversation with and about our culture, a process which will include more and more material for comparison and argumentative discussions.
10.3 Evaluative Argument versus Prose Summaries
An assignment to write an argumentative essay about a work of literature is calling for an evaluation of some aspect of that work. That means the essay must be anchored upon some opinion, some argumentative stance, and not be simply a summary of the content of the work.
This principle is vital; its importance cannot be stressed sufficiently. The failure to observe it is one of the major reasons why essays on literary subjects often do not work. So make sure you understand the difference between a summary and an evaluation. Briefly put, the important difference is as follows: a summary delivers the contents of a book; it simply translates what the book says into the essay writer's own words. But it does not take a stand or make a judgment about the book or a part of it. An evaluation, by contrast, is an argument about the significance, the value, or the interpretation of a text or a part of it.
For example, a summary of a film will simply retell the obvious details of the film. If we have already seen it, then a summary will simply tell us what we already know. If the summary is an accurate one, then there is nothing to discuss. An evaluation or argument about the film will offer a judgment of the film or some part of it. It will probably generate a discussion because not everyone will agree with it.
Thus, when you come to organize an essay on a literary text (e.g., a novel or philosophical text) you must structure the essay as an argument (unless you are specifically asked for a summary). Details from the text will provide the evidence, but however you structure the argument, you must not simply re-describe the content of the text. The failure to remember this principle is a major reason for poor essays on literature, because the essay turns into simply a summary of large parts of the fiction or of the argument.
The key symptoms which indicate that you are writing a summary rather than an evaluative argument are the absence of an argumentative thesis and the pattern of topic sentences. If there is no thesis about which we can argue, then the essay will probably be largely summary, because the essay writer has put nothing argumentative on the table. If you are routinely starting each paragraph with a sentence which simply calls attention to another point in the story or another part of the argument, without making any judgment about that part, then you are almost certainly providing a summary of the argument and not an evaluation of it. This point goes back to something stressed at the very opening of this handbook: one cannot write an interesting or useful argument about what is obvious.10.4 Structuring an Argumentative Essay on Fiction
As mentioned above, the best way to begin to organize an argumentative essay about literature is to select something very particular in the story or the argument, something which creates a reaction in you, and to explore the importance of that.
In sorting out how you could write an argumentative essay about a fiction, you might like to think of the following possibilities (this list is by no means exhaustive):
1. What is the significance of a particular character (or a particular moment in the career of a single character)? Why is that important? What human possibility does that part of the fiction hold up to us? And what is of importance, if anything, in how the incident resolves itself?
2. Does a particular character learn or fail to learn something important in the story? If the resolution of a narrative depends upon the education of a main character, then a major interpretative point in the story will undoubtedly be what that character learns. This question is often very fruitful if a major point in the narrative is a journey of some kind (Is the main character the same person at the end of the journey as at the start? If not, what has happened? Why is that significant?).
3. What is the importance of the setting (the physical environment) or some aspect of it? How does this help to define for the readers the characters' sense of nature, of how the world operates, of the values of human life?
4. Is there an interesting recurring pattern in the fiction (e.g., in the importance of women, the significance of food, the depiction of the gods, the images of nature, the style of the clothes, and so on), which points to something important? People's attitudes to and use of money or clothes, for example, often serve to symbolize a moral pattern (e.g., in Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens).
5. What role does the narrator play in your response to the story? Is that voice reliable, playful, ironic? Does the narrator understand the significance of the story?
Remember that in a short essay you can deal only with one very particular aspect of the fiction, so select carefully, and confine the argument to the significance of that one feature you have selected.
Once you have selected what you are going to focus on, derive a thesis for that focus, an argumentative opinion about it. Normally, this will take the form of a statement something like the following: "X (the item you have selected) is particularly significant in the story because . . ." If you complete that statement with an opinion, then you will have a workable thesis.
Structuring the rest of the essay, once you have a workable thesis, should follow the various principles outlined previously in this handbook. The result should be an outline something like the following:
Essay A: On John Steinbeck's Short Story "The Chrysanthemums"
Focus 1: Elisa's character
Focus 2: Elisa's character: her weak sense of her own femininity
Thesis: Elisa is a strong but very vulnerable woman, vital enough to have strong ambitions but so insecure about her own femininity that she is finally unable to cope with the strain of transforming her life. The story focuses on how that quality leads to her defeat.
TS 1: When we first see Elisa, we get an immediate sense that she is hiding her sexuality from the rest of the world. (Paragraph examines the opening descriptions of Elisa and interprets key phrases to point out how she appears to be concealing her real self)
TS 2: The speed and the energy with which Elisa later seeks to change herself bring out the extent of her dissatisfaction with the role she has been playing. (Paragraph discusses what happens as Elisa starts to respond to the crisis, arguing that she is seeking to move beyond her frustration)
TS 3: But Elisa's new sense of herself does not last. She does not have the inner strength to develop into the mature, independent woman she would like to be. In the last analysis, no matter how sympathetic we find her, she is an emotional weakling.
Conclusion: This story narrates a series of everyday events, but the emotional drama Elisa goes through is really tense. (Paragraph goes on to summarize the main argument and reaffirm the thesis)
Essay B: Short Essay on Homer
Subject: Homer's Odyssey
Focus 1: The importance of the home and hospitality
Focus 2: Home and hospitality in the Odyssey: the significance of food
Thesis: In the Odyssey, the frequent and detailed attention to food and the rituals surrounding it serve constantly to reinforce a central concern of the poem, the vital civilizing importance of the home.
TS 1: Throughout the Odyssey, we witness the way in which food taken communally can act as a way of re-energizing human beings, enabling them to cope with their distress. This, in fact, emerges as one of the most important human values in the poem. (Paragraph argues for the restorative values of food brought out repeatedly in the poem)
TS 2: The rituals surrounding food, especially the importance of welcoming guests to the feast and making sure everyone has enough, stress the warmth and central importance of open human interaction. (The paragraph argues the importance of hospitality as it is brought out by the references to food and feasting)
TS 3: The occasions in which food is consumed are also moments in which the participants celebrate the artistic richness of their culture. No where else in the poem is there so much attention paid to the significance of beauty in various forms. (Paragraph argues that all the things associated with the food-the serving dishes, the entertainment, and so on-reflect important values in the culture)
Conclusion: There is, of course, much more to the poem than the description of feasting, but we need to recognize these moments as especially important. (Paragraph restates and summarizes the central point of the argument)
Essay C: Short Essay on a Shakespearean Play
Subject: Shakespeare's Richard III
Focus 1: The importance of Anne in the play.
Focus 2: The first scene between Anne and Richard (1.3)
Thesis: Anne's role in 1.3 is particularly important to the opening of the play because it reveals clearly to us not only the devilish cleverness of Richard but also the way in which his success depends upon the weaknesses of others.
TS 1: Richard's treatment of Anne in 1.3 provides a very important look at the complex motivation and style of the play's hero. (Paragraph goes on to argue how the Richard-Anne confrontation reveals important things about Richard)
TS 2: More importantly, perhaps, the scene reveals just how Anne's understandable weaknesses enable Richard to succeed. (Paragraph looks at how Anne's response to Richard's advances reveal important things about her character)
TS 3: We can best appreciate these points by considering a key moment in the scene, the moment when Richard invites Anne to kill him. (In an illustrative paragraph, the writer takes a detailed look at five lines from the scene, to emphasize the points mentioned in the previous two paragraphs)
Conclusion: In the wider context of the play, this early scene provides Richard with a sense of his own power and thus confirms for him that he really can achieve what he most wants. (Paragraph sums up the argument in the context of the entire play)
The points to notice particularly here are, first, the argumentative nature of the thesis, which sets up an interpretative claim and, second, the opinionated topic sentences, which continue the argumentative style. They do not degenerate simply into sections of summary (retelling what goes on in the story). And notice how each argument depends upon an initial narrowing of the focus, so that the argument is concerned with only one aspect of the narrative.
A Common Mistake in the Structure of An Argument About Literature
An argumentative essay on a work of literature is commonly asking you to focus upon a particular pattern in the work (e.g., the development of character, an important theme, a pattern in the imagery, the relationship of the narrator to the fiction, and so on) and to present an interpretation of that pattern. This requires you to construct an argument which presents the reader with an organized understanding of the importance of that pattern, its significance in the wider context of the fiction.
Be very careful you do not turn such an essay into a mere catalogue of examples of the pattern. Such a structure does not advance the argument and usually ends up telling the reader what she already knows quite well from having read the story.
For example, suppose you are organizing an interpretative essay on Hamlet and you have decided you want to explore some aspect of the prince's character. So you decide you wish to make the case that an important part of Hamlet's disagreeable character is the way in which he seems to abuse the women in his life, verbally and physically. This is an interesting and important aspect of the play, and you can certainly illuminate some key issues at work by dealing with it properly.
However, that illumination will not occur if you structure the essay merely as a list of examples of Hamlet's aggressive bullying, as in the following list of topic sentences:
Hamlet is very cruel to Ophelia early on in the play. He is insensitive to her distress and uses a very harsh language in talking to her.
Later in the play Hamlet is very hard on his mother. He attacks her physically and verbally and causes her great distress.
Such a structure is tending (as you can see) merely to re-describe part of the play and is not advancing our understanding of the importance of the pattern you are looking at.
To avoid this mistake, structure the essay, not as a series of examples, but as a series of interpretative assertions about the pattern you are looking at. Notice the difference between the topic sentences given above and ones like the following:
The first important point to notice about Hamlet's treatment of women is that he refuses to listen to them, as if he is afraid of what they might say. Characteristically, he is, at the first encounter, verbally very aggressive to them, putting them at once on the defensive and confusing them. This habit prompts some important reflections on the prince's character.
Hamlet seems also curiously prone to physical violence against women, as if they incite him to lash out against them. What makes this all the more curious, of course, is that both Ophelia and Gertrude love him very much (and he knows it).
Notice the key difference here. In the latter topic sentences, the focus is squarely on the significance of the pattern you are exploring, not upon a particular example. In both paragraphs based on these topic sentences you will introduce evidence, and that evidence can come from anywhere in the play (either Gertrude or Ophelia or both)
10.6 Structuring a Short Essay on the Evaluation of an Argument
In certain academic disciplines, a very common assignment invites the student to evaluate part of a complex argument presented in a classic text (e.g., Hobbes's Leviathan, Mill's On Liberty, Plato's Meno, Descartes's Meditations, and so on). There are many useful ways to analyze arguments. However, there are some characteristic ways in which essays evaluating arguments can go astray and some immediately useful things which may help to avoid such problems or to patch up essays which suffer from them.
A Note on the Process of Evaluating an Argument
In an essay which seeks to evaluate an argument (or a part of it), the basic task is to focus on one aspect of a characteristically complex position and to explore what the values or the limitations of this part of the argument might be and how that might illuminate other parts of the argument. In a short essay, you are not expected necessarily to pass final judgment on the entire argument.
In fact, it is probably a bad idea to think that your task is to deliver a final verdict on whether, say, Hobbes, Plato, Rousseau, Descartes, and so on are worth reading or are competent arguers. None of these thinkers is simple minded, and if you find yourself dismissing the entire position with one or two relatively casual points, then you are probably missing something central in the argument.
In other words, as an evaluator, begin with a considerable respect for the person whose work you are addressing. These books did not become classic works because they are easily neutralized or dismissed; they are onto something central in an interesting way. This fact does not mean that you have to agree with their positions, of course, but it does mean that you have to be careful about conducting your evaluation thoroughly. Thus, if you find yourself writing them off very easily, you are probably, as I say, missing an important point. Even if the argument we are dealing with is from someone we have never heard of, it is a good idea to give her the benefit of the doubt at first, and treat her case as coming from someone serious and intelligent. We may reverse that position later, but we should not do it too quickly.
In any case, our task, as mentioned above, is not a final yea or nay on the entire position. The task is somewhat humbler, but ultimately more rewarding: to explore one or two aspects of the argument and to offer our reflections on what is going on in this part of the text and the extent to which that is a fully or only partially useful insight into the issues.
In many cases, our evaluation of a text will be most useful if it simply raises some awkward questions and explores how this thinker's position might deal with them. Such a procedure might help to confirm a very enthusiastic response to the text or to point out some of the reasons for our sense of dissatisfaction or puzzlement with the argument. This stance, it should be clear, is very different from simply interpreting the business of evaluation as having to determine whether or not the text has anything useful to offer.
Thus, as a general rule in evaluating arguments, think of yourself as selecting for close scrutiny a particular part of the writer's case, praising strong points or exploring weak points or questioning inadequacies or testing the method of the thinker, rather than passing comprehensive judgment. With this stance, it is not unlikely that in many cases your response to a particular part of a complex argument will typically be mixed: the writer has an important handle on part of the issue and is quite persuasive within the framework of particular assumptions; however, the particular part of the argument which you are considering raises questions which create difficulties (how important those difficulties are can, of course, vary considerably and will be an important factor in your evaluation of how seriously limited this part of the argument is).
At the same time, remember the point stressed above, that an evaluation is not a summary. You are expected to bring to bear upon a selected portion of the text your own judgment--an argumentative stance. This may be polite, or mixed, or strong, or questioning, but it is a personal evaluation, not just a condensed review without evaluation of the argument you are addressing. Summaries of arguments have their uses, but they are no substitute in an assignment which requires an evaluative response (an interpretative opinion about the argument, not simply a précis of it).
Evaluate Arguments from the Inside not the Outside
A serious inadequacy in many student essays is that the evaluation takes places without any sensitive entry into the text under consideration. Here, for example, is a very common form of essay from inexperienced writers.
1. Thinker X (e.g., Rousseau, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Plato, and so on) makes a number of initial assumptions in developing his theory of the state. The most important of these assumptions are A, B, and C.
2. But Thinker X is wrong, because the true starting assumptions should not be A, B, and C, which are wrong (or inadequate), but M, N, and P, which are true.
3. Let's look at some examples of how Thinker X is wrong. Example 1 shows that because Thinker X does not believe or consider M, N, and P, he is wrong. If he had thought clearly about M, N, and P, he would have said something different.
The problem with an argument like this is that is consists of little more than mere assertion and does not deal at all with the nature of Thinker X's case. It may indeed be true that Thinker X's initial assumptions are things we no longer believe to be adequate or true (or do not wish to be true), but that does not necessarily make his argument worthless. You need to examine his case in the light of his own assumptions.
In addition, if your only case against Thinker X is a rival set of assumptions (M, N, and P), and you simply state these baldly without further ado, then we have no way of assessing in any detail the validity of Thinker X's position, except to recognize that you don't agree with him (and what gives you the authority to say that your initial unsupported assumptions are any better than Thinker X's?).
I call this common tactic arguing from the outside, because it involves the comparatively simple and generally unenlightening procedure of bringing to bear on Thinker X your own unproven assumptions and measuring a complex argument by some simple axioms that Thinker X has, at the start of his argument, not included.
All this process tends to achieve is to indicate that you do not agree with his or her initial assumptions, but it still leaves the business of evaluating the argument in any further detail up to the reader without assistance from you. It also leaves you unable to appreciate the value of arguments which are based on principles which have been replaced (e.g., the value of arguments about the nature of the earth based on outdated theories of the earth's age).
Now, suppose you do find Thinker X's initial assumptions problematic or you think they are only partially correct because they have omitted something that Thinker X needs to take into account. Rather than just baldly contradicting his assumptions and insisting upon the importance of your own, evaluate what he does with his initial claims (from the inside) and raise objections, questions, and so forth at key places in the argument, so that your evaluation stems from a perceived deficiency or quality in a significant detail of the argument.
For example, suppose you are writing a paper evaluating Hobbes's views on sovereignty (about which you have strong reservations or even an active dislike). Suppose further that you recognize that one source of the problem may be in Hobbes's initial assumptions about human psychology. Rather than simply denying the validity of those assumptions, accept them hypothetically and see what Hobbes does with them.
So, for example, you can trace the logic of Hobbes's claim that giving all power to the sovereign is a logical outcome of his views of human nature, the state of nature, and the formation of the state. Now you can raise the awkward question: How does Hobbes propose to deal with the issue of power corrupting? Based on his own assumptions about human nature, how will his state protect itself from what Plato and Aristotle, among others, clearly saw as a major danger to civil order? If the sovereign is a human being, as Hobbes's describes them, then how will the state be able to fulfill its functions, once he has all the power?
The next step would be to explore what Hobbes has to say about this question (because, as many good thinkers usually do, he has anticipated the objection). But how adequate are his responses (that a corrupt sovereign is better than a state of nature, that the sovereign will not normally want to be corrupt anyway, that the sovereign cannot come for your life)? And in your analysis of these responses call attention to what you feel might be lacking.
Notice what is happening here. You are always operating in direct contact with the text, arguing from the inside, leading the reader to your basic objections about (or unease with) Hobbes through the details of what Hobbes himself actually writes, so that as the reader goes through your essay, she is learning a great deal about Hobbes and about where you sense particular aspects of the theory may be vulnerable.
Notice, too, what you are not doing: you are not simply imposing from outside a preformed judgment about what is or is not the best way for human beings to behave. You not raising issues which do not come directly from the text itself, and whatever problems you have with Hobbes are arising from his treatment of the subject not from some ideological position you prefer.
The same general principles would hold, for example, in an examination of, say, the importance of co-operation and Hobbes's apparent neglect of it, Machiavelli's treatment of virtue, Descartes's view of animals as machines, Ptolemy's treatment of the Phases of Venus, de Beauvoir's sense of female sexuality, or Plato's view of the Social Contract in the Crito and so on. Tackle the argument through its own assumptions, explore how these lead to a particular treatment of an important issue, raise some questions about the adequacy of that treatment (if you have any), and evaluate that treatment, if necessary by a reference back to the initial assumptions. Thus, the reader comes to understand your position (approving, mixed, or disapproving) as arising from your encounter with the text and not as simply imposed by a fixed mind set from outside.
This process of arguing from the inside can be (very simply, perhaps too simply) summarized as follows:
1. Thinker X says that Y (some issue) is to understood in such and such a way.
2. Why does Thinker X make this claim? (An exploration of the basis of the argument)
3. What is valuable about this analysis?
4. However, Thinker X's treatment here does invite one to raise some questions, alternative scenarios, counterexamples.
5. How would Thinker X deal with such potentially awkward questions?
6. This seems like a (satisfactory, unsatisfactory, illogical, inadequate, strained, limited, and so on) explanation.
7. This point, in fact, suggests an overall problem with the entire theory (or indicates just how fertile and useful Thinker X's position really is).
8. We can appreciate this problem clearly by considering another point (repeat process d to f).
Note that in the above structure you are giving Thinker X a good hearing in at least three respects:
1. You link his position on a particular (and perhaps controversial) issue to the grounded argument he makes from first principles.
2. You concede the fact that there is something in this case (as there almost always will be if you are dealing with a thinker who is not thoroughly simple minded).
3. When you raise an objection or an awkward question, you give Thinker X the first chance to respond; in other words, you strive to understand the problem in the terms defined by the argument.
In the above structure, to a considerable extent your evaluation of Thinker X will therefore stem from the application of his principles to a particular problem, rather than from a rival set of assumptions. Of course you may introduce rival assumptions, perhaps as a reminder that there are alternative ways of dealing with the awkwardness in the argument, but do not make those unproven assumptions carry more weight in your argument than they can bear.
All of this is very different from simply dismissing Thinker X's case because you claim you have better (truer) initial assumptions than Thinker X does or because Thinker X lived a long time ago, long before the things we believe are true were known.
Select the Focus Carefully
The evaluative structure outlined above depends entirely on your selecting a very specific, clear, and important focus for your essay. You cannot hope to provide a useful evaluation of the entire argument. What you want is a key place in the argument which will enable you, in a close but restricted look, to offer significant insight into the entire structure of the argument.
In a sophisticated lengthy argument there are a great many potentially useful entry points, but some may be more fertile than others. So you need to give careful thought to what specific part of Thinker X's case is going to provide the best focus for your evaluation.
For instance, if you are uneasy about, or puzzled by, or supportive of Machiavelli's concept of political conduct, then some sections of his argument might be much more useful for an evaluation in a short essay than others (e.g., the chapter on cruelty or promises is probably of more immediate use to you than, say, the discussion of fortifications or the section on the unification of Italy). If you select carefully, you do not require a very extensive part of the text, but it must be one which will enable you to explore those matters which most concern you.
In any event, a close look at a carefully selected focus is almost always better than a "scattergun" approach where you roam throughout the entire text for examples often not obviously closely related to each other. For if you can call into question certain issues in key parts of the argument, you will illuminate through that method many other parts which you do not deal with specifically.
Check Carefully Any Appeals to Context
Appealing the context is often a tempting way to deal with part of an argument. This is a risky procedure, however, for a number of reasons. In the first place, we often have no way of knowing precisely what contextual or biographical reasons prompt a writer to construct an argument in a certain way; thus, a good deal of often very questionable speculation is frequently involved. In the second place, and much more important, an appeal to context often falls into the major analytical error of believing that if one has accounted for the possible origin of a part of the argument, one has at the same time adequately dealt with the function of that part of the argument.
For instance, many students are tempted to account for Descartes's proof for God's existence in the Meditations merely as an attempt to fob off the religious authorities or as an appeal to the religious sensibilities of the readers. Having done this, the writer then moves on to other parts of the argument, as if making such an appeal to context properly deals with the place of the proofs of God's existence in Descartes's case.
But this procedure is avoiding the main issue: What is the function of the proof of God in Descartes's argument and, no matter what the origin, how adequate is Descartes's treatment of this section of the Meditations? The simplistic appeal to context has simply brushed aside one of the crucial stages of the central case Descartes is presenting.
In a similar fashion, students will often write off Hobbes's view of political obligation merely as a product of Hobbes's alleged devotion to capitalism or to the growing interest in capitalism in Hobbes's world. Once again, such an analysis misses the main point: What is Hobbes's analysis of the political state and how satisfactory is it?
Appeals to context are often a very important part of very detailed studies of the origins of particular ideas or artistic works, and they can often usefully explicate some things we may find puzzling in the language. But in evaluating the lasting merit of a particular work, the writer should be very careful that she is not simply using a reference to the context as a means of by-passing the main challenge of evaluating how a part of the text functions in relationship to the developing argument.
Use Counterexamples Intelligently
An important part of evaluating an argument is often the use of counterexamples, that is, of special scenarios or case studies which challenge Thinker X's theory.
For example, you might want, in an analysis of, say, Machiavelli, to offer counterexamples of Princes who have held to a traditional view of virtue and prospered (in Machiavelli's sense of prospering) or of those who have held unswervingly to Machiavellian principles and failed. Or, in an analysis of, say, Hobbes, you might want to offer the counterexample of co-operative behaviour or an emphasis on community. If the argument you are examining relies heavily upon examples (as, for example, Machiavelli's does), then counter-examples can be very useful (or, if not specific counter-examples, at least an examination of the adequacy of the examples in the argument).
Such counterexamples are, in themselves, never very satisfactory refutations of any complex position. However, they are often really useful ways of exploring the adequacy of Thinker X's position. So the value of counterexamples comes from how you use them to highlight strengths and weaknesses of Thinker X's case.
It is, of course, particularly important that, when you introduce a counterexample, you first apply to it Thinker X's method of analysis. How might Thinker X respond to what you are putting on the table? And then, in your analysis of that response you can illustrate the strengths or weaknesses or limitations of Thinker X's position. Obviously, if you can come up with a cogent counterexample which directly contradicts Thinker X's position or which his argument simply cannot explain, then you have a strong case for challenging the assumptions and the logic which have created that situation (provided, of course, that your own assumptions and logic are sound).
Be very careful in this process that you give Thinker X a fair hearing, because in some cases the problem may not be with Thinker X's case in itself but with the example. For instance, if you select an extreme counterexample of a corrupt sovereign in order to challenge Hobbes's claim that the corruption at the top is preferable to the alternative (say, for example, Hitler's treatment of the German Jews), then you will at least have to consider the point that that example might, in Hobbes's view, endorse his position rather than disprove it, since Hobbes is very clear that your obligation to obey ceases when the sovereign comes for your life and that you have then the right to fight back by any means at your disposal (i.e., if the Jews had broken their contract to obey and acted as if they were in the state of nature, they might not have died in such staggering numbers and the sovereign might have fallen; Hobbes argues that they had a full right to do so). This extreme example, I should add, might be developed further into a significant critique of Hobbes's position, but by itself it is not necessarily a very strong case, until you have dealt with the way Hobbes's argument treats it.
In other words, when dealing with counterexamples, think very carefully about whether this instance is a challenge to the basis of Thinker X's argument or whether it might not be simply an example of an insufficiently rigorous application of his position.
Counterexamples can come from various sources. For example, other writers will often be a useful source (what about Aristotle's notion of community in a consideration of Hobbes's state or Harvey's notions of experimental evidence in a consideration of Descartes's method, and so on). That is the reason comparative essays are often so useful: one writer serves as a counterexample to the other.
Alternatively, counterexamples can come from historical events (for example, the defeat of the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War as a counterexample to Machiavelli's advice, modern communal social experiments as a challenge to Hobbes's atomised state, and so on). Be very careful of historical examples, however, since they are almost always complex and inherently ambiguous, there being many different interpretations of what really happened and why.
Counterexamples can also be made up as mini-thought experiments. These are often the most interesting and useful. For instance, to explicate Descartes's first proof for the existence of God you might want to ask the reader to consider the imaginary case in which you find your eight-year-old child completing a drawing of a highly sophisticated computer network. This, in fact, never happened, but you want to use the example to elaborate and explore Descartes's notion that some events must have a cause which contains at least as much reality as the event (i.e., it is reasonable to conclude that the source of the drawing is in a much more sophisticated mind than the child's).
Whatever counterexamples you come up with (and it is a very good technique to practice), remember that you are introducing them only to throw into relief particular features of the text you are considering. In other words, the counterexamples themselves prove nothing about the text or the world in general. They can, however, highlight certain questions about or problems with a part of the argument you are considering, so that if you then use the counterexample to see how Thinker X might deal with it, you can often illuminate both the strengths and the weaknesses of Thinker X's position in various ways.
You can only do this, however, if you give Thinker X a proper chance to deal with the counterexample. Notice the structure of the following paragraph in this connection (which elaborates on the child's computer drawing introduced above, a summary point made by John Cottingham):
Now, Descartes's first proof for God's existence does have some initial plausibility. For example, if I discovered my ten-year-old daughter had drawn an apparently accurate diagram of a very sophisticated computer system, I would quickly infer that some mind other than the child's (and one much more informed about computers) had been at work (or else another diagram produced by such a mind) and was, in fact, the source of the idea. The analogy here seems clear and distinct enough, since obviously the child's mind could not have produced the diagram unaided. So to that extent Descartes's argument that the idea of God's perfection in an imperfect creature must come from a divine source seems fair enough. But, of course, there's a problem here, because Descartes's idea of God may not be all that similar to a complex computer design. Consider the same case of my child's drawing, but this time I find a picture of a black square box and a label "Very big computer" underneath it. In that scenario, I would be far less likely to have a clear and distinct perception that some mind greater than the child's produced the image. Descartes might deny that his conception of God is indeed like this simple diagram; however, if this second scenario is a better analogy to Descartes's notion of God than the first, then, for all the initial plausibility, Descartes's first argument for the existence of God does not appear all that sound.
Notice here that finding a potential weakness through applying a counterexample does not entitle one immediately to chuck out the entire argument. You have identified a key problem and will go on to explore how that affects your response to Descartes's case (or whatever part of it you have selected to focus upon), but you are not at once dismissing Descartes as a thinker no longer worth attending to.
10.7 Some Sample Outlines for Short Essays Evaluating Arguments
Here are some sample outlines for argumentative and interpretative essays on texts which present arguments. The assumption is that these are short essays of about 1000 words (i.e., four or five paragraphs). Notice, as before, how the outline narrows the focus to something very specific, how the thesis presents an argumentative opinion about that focus, and then how the topic sentences (other than the ones immediately after the introductory paragraph which define the issue further) all develop that thesis (and do not simply retell the argument).
Subject: Hobbes's argument in the Leviathan
Focus 1: Hobbes's concept of sovereignty
Focus 2: Hobbes concept of sovereignty: the dangers to the state of a corrupt monarch.
Thesis: One of the major questions one wants to raise about Hobbes's vision of the modern state is his insistence that the total power belongs to the sovereign. This would seem, on the face of it, a dangerous idea which would lead away from the very things Hobbes believes justify the establishment of the commonwealth in the first place.
TS 1: Before analyzing Hobbes's view of sovereignty, we should quickly review how he comes to define it the way he does. (Paragraph defines Hobbes's concept: this paragraph is defining the issue, not starting the argument)
TS 2: This concept obviously has some merits within the context of Hobbes's argument. (Paragraph argues that this concept makes sense in some respects)
TS 3: However, the first question one would want to raise about it is this: How is the commonwealth to be protected from the corruption of the sovereign? (Paragraph goes on to argue that this is a real danger, especially given Hobbes's view of human nature)
TS 4: There are two reasonable ways in which Hobbes seeks to answer this charge. (Paragraph goes on to argue that Hobbes's case takes care of this objection to some extent).
TS 5: However, these aspects of Hobbes's argument are problematic. (Paragraph goes on to argue that Hobbes's defence of this charge would not be entirely satisfactory)
TS 6: To appreciate these problem let us consider a typical case of a corrupt sovereign. (Paragraph uses a counterexample to consolidate the points made above).
Conclusion: The dangers of a corrupt sovereign are clearly something Hobbes takes into account. However, we have good reason to wonder about how satisfactory his treatment of this potential objection might be. (Paragraph sums up the argument)
Subject: Plato's Republic
Focus 1: Plato's views on art in Book X
Focus 2: Plato's views on art: censorship by the state
Thesis: Plato's discussion of censorship of art is of particular interest. It raises some key issues about the corrupting influence of certain forms of art, questions as much alive today as at the time this text first appeared.
TS 1: One key objection to certain forms of art raised by Socrates is that it encourages those aspects of the human psyche detrimental to the harmony necessary to proper living. This point arises naturally out of Socrates's conception of the human soul and, from a common sense point of view, is quite persuasive. (Paragraph argues that this point about art has a certain justification for the reasons Socrates brings up)
TS 2: A second reason for censorship is the particularly interesting point that debased art corrupts the understanding. Again, this point has considerable merit. (Paragraph argues that this defence of censorship is also persuasive)
TS 3: Most of us would still have some trouble agreeing with such censorship. (Paragraph brings to bear some objections to Plato's recommendations)
TS 4: However, if we recall the nature of those in charge of the censorship in Plato's Republic, perhaps we would find it much easier to accept the practice. (Paragraph gives Plato a chance to argue a response to the objections given in the previous paragraph)
Conclusion: Many discussions of the question of censorship today continue to take place within the framework defined by Plato in this section of the Republic. (Paragraph goes on to summarize the argument and restate the thesis)
Subject: John Stuart Mill's On Liberty
Focus 1: Mill's concept of open free discussion
Focus 2: Mill's concept of open free discussion: some problems
Thesis: While justly famous as an eloquent statement of liberal principles, Mill's key concept of free and open discussion raises some important questions which Mill does not address.
TS 1: The first and most obvious question is this: Where are such free discussions to take place? (Paragraph argues that Mill's society does not have enough open places for discussion).
TS 2: A related criticism calls attention to those who are excluded from such forums. Mill's argument does not seem to have much place for them. (Paragraph argues that many people will lack the qualifications to take part).
TS 3: In defense of Mill, one might argue that these two objections are not lethal: there are ways of dealing with them in the context of his presentation. (Paragraph acknowledges the opposition and tries to answer the objections using Mill's theory).
TS 4: This sounds all very well in theory, but in practice many people are going to be excluded. That is clear from the way Mill insists the debates should take place. (Paragraph argues that the defense of Mill in the previous paragraph is not adequate).
TS 5: It doesn't take much imagination to visualize a society which implements Mill's recommendations and yet excludes a majority of its citizens from public forums. (Paragraph uses a counterexample).
Conclusion: The strength of Mill's case is the appeal of a rational liberal democracy, but its weaknesses stem from the same source. (Paragraph goes on to sum up the argument)
10.8 Writing Short Arguments About Lyric Poetry
An assignment students often have particular difficulty with is a short essay on a lyric poem. This creates problems because lyric poems do not usually deal with characterization, argument, or narrative, the three most common entries into a work of literature. In order to clarify what such an assignment calls for we need first to review quickly what a lyric poem is and how we are expected to read it.
Reading a Lyric Poem
Typically a lyric poem is a short reflective or meditative passage by a speaker, the voice uttering the words (who is not to be automatically identified as the poet). This speaker may or may not have a clear identity (i.e., the poem may provide some details about him or her, or it may not). In your essay, you should always refer to the speaking voice of the poem as the speaker (not as the author) and never interpret the poem simply as a biographical insight into the author. Generally it is a good idea to pretend that you do not know who the author is.
In the lyric, the speaker is typically meditating on some aspect of life, trying to communicate a feeling or a range of feelings about a common experience. The quality of the lyric poem will normally depend upon the extent to which the lyric communicates in an imaginatively moving way some insight into that experience. If you remember that popular songs are lyric poems and think about why you like some song lyrics better than others, you will sense better what a lyric poem is and why some are better than others.
The first task in reading a lyric poem is to clarify the literal level of the poem. This will take several readings. But you must develop some answers to the following questions: Who is the speaker of the poem (details may be few here, but learn as much as you can: age, gender, situation)? Where is the speaker (in the city, the country, looking at something)? What general experience is the speaker thinking about (love, time, loss, nature, growing old)? Is the poem looking backward into a memory or forward into a future or remaining fixed in the present, or, most importantly, does the speaker's attention shift from the present to the past and the future? Is the speaker addressing anyone in the poem (a lover, God, another part of himself)?
You cannot proceed to organize an interpretative argument until you are as clear as you can be about all these literal details. If you find a poem's literal details confusing or ambiguous (and that's not uncommon), then discuss it with someone else, so that you arrive together at some understanding of the literal details of the poem. If you come across words you do not understand exactly, make sure you look them up in a dictionary.
Once you have a sense of the literal details of the poem, search out the answer to this key question: What feelings or range of feelings is the speaker exploring about the experience he or she is dealing with? This is the crucial point of a lyric poem. As with popular songs, lyric poems generally deal with one of a short list of general subjects: love, memories, death, loss, nature. What distinguishes lyric poems from each other is the way in which the speakers respond to these common experiences.
In trying to sort out the speaker's feelings about the experience she is dealing with, pay particular attention to any changes in feelings or contradictions in feelings. Does the speaker's mood shift from despair to joy, from happiness at a past memory to resignation at future prospects? If this is a love poem, what is the full range of the speaker's feelings about the experience (joy, bitterness, frustration, guilt, anger, despair, melancholy or some combination)? Lyric poems (like songs) are often ambiguous, expressing contradictory and shifting feelings, and often they do not lead to a resolution of those feelings. They are not like rational arguments, which seek a linear clarity and closure. As often as not, the speaker may be questioning her own feelings, unsure of what they all mean exactly.
As you interpret the poem, do not get confused about the time shifts. Pay attention to the verbs; these indicate whether the speaker is talking about the past, the present, or the future. This is particularly important in some meditative lyrics where comparing the past and the present is the central issue. In fact, if there is a shift back and forth like this, then that is almost certainly an important key to understanding the poem (e.g., the speaker recalls with joy the excitement of being young, turns to the present with sadness because that excitement is gone, and looks ahead to the future with despair: this temporal structure is very common in lyric poems and is especially common in rock 'n' roll, especially with Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, and many others).
Structuring a Short Interpretative Essay on a Lyric Poem
Once you have read and re-read the poem sufficiently to have a firm sense of the above issues, you can then move to organizing an essay which interprets the lyric or part of it. Remember that the function of this essay is to assist the reader to appreciate the poem. So you are going to present an argument (as you would in a film review), calling attention to something which, in your view, gives this poem a certain quality (good, bad, mixed, or whatever). The central issue to address in such an essay is this: How do one or more particular features of the style of the poem contribute to the quality of the exploration of feeling which is going on in the poem?
Generally speaking it is a good idea to start in the usual way with a Subject-Focus-Thesis paragraph. This will identify the poem you are dealing with, call attention to the speaker and the experience he is exploring, and establish a thesis which argues for a certain interpretative judgment about the poem. The main part of the argument (three or four paragraphs) will seek to persuade the reader of that thesis by taking a very close look at certain elements in the style, that is, in the way the language of the poem makes it work well or poorly.
Here's a sample introduction which follows the standard opening for a short, argumentative essay, with some topic sentences for the argumentative paragraphs:
Sample Introduction and Outline for Essay A on a Lyric Poem
In Sonnet 73 Shakespeare returns to one of his favourite poetic themes, the disappointments of love. Here the speaker, addressing a lover or a dear friend, is clearly filled with a sense that something is coming to an end in their relationship. It may be that he is old and trying to come to terms with his approaching death or that he is just feeling old and tired, emotionally empty and dead. In either case, the predominant mood of the poem, from start to finish, is a quiet resignation, a tired acceptance of the inevitability of what is happening. The style of the poem brings out repeatedly the speaker's sombre, unexcited, even passive acknowledgement that he is, emotionally or physically, about to die.
TS 1: We get a clear sense of this prevailing mood largely through the imagery (The paragraph goes on to discuss how the sequence of images reinforces this sense).
TS 2: The language, too, evokes a sense of resigned acceptance which speaks eloquently of the prevailing mood. (Paragraph goes on to interpret particular words and phrases to establish this point)
TS 3: What is most remarkable in this evocative and sad mood is that the speaker does not blame anyone, not even himself. The constant emphasis on natural processes and the subdued language suggest that the end is inevitably fated. (Paragraph discusses this point)
Notice how the main emphasis in this argument is not the experience the speaker is describing (the death of the relationship) but rather the speaker's response to that experience, the range of moods he goes through, as these emerge from the language, imagery, and rhythms of the poem.
To write a successful argumentative interpretation of a lyric poem, you must grasp this principle that the interpretation looks at how the language of the poem reveals things about the quality of the speaker's response. This is not easy at first, but unless you commit yourself to doing it, you will not be interpreting the poem. And please note, as before, that none of the paragraphs above is summarizing the details of the poem (that is, just translating it into another language). Do not simply recast the poem into your own words (first the speaker says this. . . . ; then the speaker says that. . . . ).
Here is another sample. Notice once again the characteristic emphasis in the argument linking aspects of the style of the poem to the range of feelings of the speaker.
Sample Outline for Essay B
Frost's "Mending Wall"
Focus: The ambiguity of the speaker's feelings about the process of mending the wall.
Thesis: Frost's language and, in particular, his imagery create throughout the poem a sense of the speaker's divided feelings about what he and his neighbour do every spring. The result is an intriguingly complex lyric.
TS 1: The images of spring and the speaker's interest in them evoke a feeling that he senses that there is something unnatural about the wall he and his neighbour are building. He is, to some extent, dissatisfied with the procedure. (Paragraph discusses one or two examples of these images to bring out the point)
TS 2: At the same time, however, the way he describes the wall and the process of rebuilding it suggests clearly that he finds the ritual enjoyable, almost magical, and, in a curious way, necessary. (Paragraph takes a detailed look at another part of the poem to establish this point)
TS 3: Particularly significant in the lyric is the description of the neighbour. This injects into the poem a sudden feeling of how the speaker is both fascinated and afraid of his co-worker. (Paragraph goes on to look at the description of the neighbour in detail).
Some Do's and Don't For Essays on Lyric Poems
Here are some points to consider as you think about structuring an outline for a short essay on a lyric poem:
1. Never simply translate the surface details of the poem into a prose summary of your own. Assume the reader of your essay has read the poem and needs help in understanding it. She does not need to be told what the poem contains; she wants to know the significance of parts of it, what the lyric adds up to.
2. Do not leap to instantly allegorical interpretations in which you simply translate the images into some symbolic equivalent. Deal with the poem on a literal level first: explore what it has to reveal about the feelings of the speaker, taking the images quite literally first (e.g., the tree is a tree, the sun is the sun, and so on). You can explore the wider symbolic possibilities (and you should) later in the essay.
3. For the same reason, do not translate the poem into an autobiographical comment on the author's life. There may be important connections between the writing of the poem and the author's life, but treat the poem in your essay as a work independent of its author. Again, that is a point you can come back to, if you have to, near the end of the essay.
4. Be careful of your language when you are discussing a poem. Notice that there is an important difference between "a disgusting mood" and "a mood of disgust." The first means that you personally find the speaker's attitude repulsive (i.e., it really offends you); the second means that you sense that the speaker is reacting with disgust to the experience she is exploring.
5. Remember, too, that you are not in your essay trying to fix the exact meaning of the lyric. You are exploring possible interpretations. So don't be too ham-fisted in your language. Usually it's better to avoid phrases like "This line means . . ." or "The symbol obviously represents . . ." Generally speaking words like "suggests," "raises the possibility," "evokes a sense of," "expresses" and so on are more effective in conveying a sense of the emotional range of the speaker. This point is connected with the problem of overstating the conclusion of an inductive argument.
6. Never just quote a section from the poem and move on, without indicating in some detail why those lines or words help to establish what you are arguing as an interpretation in the paragraph.
7. Do not make the paragraphs of the essay simply a catalogue of examples ("There are some nice images in the first stanza," "There are more images of trees in the third stanza," and so on)
10.9 Sample Essay on a Lyric Poem
Here is a sample of a short essay on a lyric poem. Notice that the essay does not summarize the poem. Instead it sets up an opinion about the poem (the thesis) and then paragraph by paragraph discusses a particular part of the poem in order to substantiate that thesis.
Bob Dylan's "The Tambourine Man": An Interpretation
Bob Dylan's poem "The Tambourine Man" explores the feelings of a person who wants to escape from a fearful world in which he feels trapped, without the ability to move away or to imagine as he would like. The poem is basically a plea for help in escaping his present condition, if only temporarily. Although much of the work expresses a rather sentimental wish to deal with pain by immediate escape and although much of the imagery is a bit fuzzy, on the whole the poem, and especially the imagery and sound patterns, succeed in conveying well the attractive longing of the speaker for imaginative release.
Much of the language in the poem suggests that the speaker finds no satisfaction in any past achievements and is seeking, even desperate for, some way out of an unwelcome present. As a result he feels trapped and unwilling to face the world in which he finds himself. For example, words like "vanished," "blindly," "weariness," "empty," "stripped," "numb," and so on constantly reinforce the sense that the speaker finds nothing enjoyable or creative in his present situation, largely because his nervous system and senses have ceased to function as he would like. Some of these expressions of dissatisfaction are rather puzzling. There is no mistaking the mood, but the precise situation remains elusive. Notice, for example, the following lines:
Though I know that evenin's empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand
But still no sleepin'.
I'm branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet,
And the ancient empty street's
Too dead for dreamin'. (5-13)
This passage is full of words evoking the speaker's sense of pain, loss, and frustration ("vanished," "ancient empty," and so on), but there is no precise sense of a particular reason. The intriguing image of "Evenin's empire has returned into sand" suggests something about the collapse of an experience that was truly rewarding, something that temporarily transformed his life from a desert into something much richer. The final line, "Too dead for dreamin'," brings out a sense that the root cause may be some imaginative failure, so that he has become the victim of an incapacity to respond as he would like. The notion of branding in line 9 reinforces this notion that the speaker feels like a prisoner of some sort. Later in the poem the most evocative language describes the speaker's fear of remaining where he is; he wants to move "Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow." This image presents a graphic and threatening sense of what he wants to escape from, a malignant and irrational creature which, if it ever catches him, will close him inexorably in sorrow. The image injects a note of real urgency into his desire for release.
The imagery, which is often a bit fuzzy, emphasizes that the speaker desires an immediate release from his present reality. Here the essentially escapist and sentimental nature of the poem show through clearly. For many of the images which express his desires are rather imprecise: "Magic, swirlin' ship," "the smoke rings of my mind," and "the circus sands," for example. These phrases evoke a sense of how much the speaker wants to discover a realm of imaginative release, but they are very close to clichés and do not clearly define what it is exactly that the speaker wishes to find. What, for example, does he mean by "I'm ready for to fade/ into my own parade." The wish is real enough, but it really does not convey anything much more precise than a vague wish to escape into his own personal feelings. The most dominant image, that of the Tambourine Man himself, to whom the poem is addressed, clarifies things somewhat. It gives us the impression that the speaker may be in need of some energizing rhythm (of the sort provided by a tambourine), so that he can "dance," that is, find within himself the co-ordinating energy to express a sense of his joy in life.
One feature of the style makes this lyric, no matter how escapist parts of it may be, really memorable: the tonal qualities of the language. Dylan succeeds here in conveying an infectious sense of the attractions of the rhythmic dance he wants the Tambourine Man to provide. This quality is obvious enough if one listens to the song, but it is also clear in the lyrics on the page. For instance, the lines contain a good deal of alliteration: "jingle, jangle," "swirlin' ship," senses . . . stripped," "for to fade," and so forth. This characteristic, combined with the very strong and obvious rhyme scheme throughout, gives to the lines an emphatic and attractive energy, so that as we read we can sense how the speaker's mood of frustration and fear about the world he has been in is being transformed into something energizing and attractive. Although much of the poem contains imagery suggesting the painful desolation of the real world, the tone of the poem is not mournful, for the energy in the language, and especially in the sound patterns of alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme, convey a sense that the speaker has not given up. He is full of hope that the Tambourine Man's gift of music will, in fact, liberate him.
"The Tambourine Man," like so many popular songs, is basically quite thin, answering to the speaker's (and perhaps to the reader's) desire to resolve the painfulness of life by a temporary escape into a joyous energy, a solitary dance far removed from present surroundings. What precisely the Tambourine Man represents is not clear, but it seems that he offers the speaker the energizing joys of music. He will not resolve the difficulties of the speaker's life, but he will, at least for a time, help the speaker to forget about them. What sets this poem above so many similar ones is the skill with which the poet has organized the words-especially the images and the sounds-to convey a memorable sense of the powers of the Tambourine Man. It may be escapist, but it's hard to resist.
Notes on the Sample Essay
Make sure you recognize the following points about the essay above.
1. The above essay is approximately 1000 words long. It consists of only five paragraphs: one introductory paragraph (with the subject-focus-thesis format), three paragraphs of argument, and a final concluding paragraph.
2. The opening paragraph begins by identifying the poem and establishes clearly the focus of the essay (the imagery and sound patters in relation to the speaker's feelings about life) and set up a clearly opinionated thesis (which is an interpretative opinion).
3. Notice particularly that the introductory paragraph gets right down to the point, without digressing into details of the author's life and times. And the opening directs our attention away from the poet onto the central issue: the feelings of the speaker.
4. Each argumentative paragraph (i.e., paragraphs two, three, and four) identifies an interpretative point in the opening topic sentence and then offers some examples, sometimes by quoting a few lines, sometimes just by calling attention to single words. And, once the writer has introduced such evidence, she then goes on immediately to interpret it; that is, she discusses how that particular material establishes the point she is making in the topic sentence. She never just quotes material and moves onto something else.
5. Nowhere does the essay attempt to summarize the poem. It assumes that the reader is already very familiar with the poem. And she deals with the imagery literally; she does not translate it into something else (e.g., the Tambourine Man must be a drug dealer, the experience the speaker wants is to get totally high on narcotics).
10.10 Writing Reviews of Fine and Performing Arts Events
A review is, like the normal college essay, an expository argument. You are presenting your opinion of what you have seen and are seeking to persuade the reader to share that opinion. Like any argument, a review must have a clear logic (based on a firm opinion, or thesis), with an introduction and a sequence of paragraphs presenting well organized evidence. The following notes may help you produce a better review. There is a sample short review at the end of these notes.
1. First of all, remember that you are writing the review for someone who is thinking of going to the event and would appreciate some advice and for someone who has seen the show and is interested in reading what someone else thinks about it. Neither of these people needs a descriptive rehash of the event. What they are looking for is an evaluation.
2. It is customary to open a review by indicating the name, place, and time of the event you are reviewing. Identify those responsible for putting on the event, indicating (usually) the general content of the show. You should do this briefly, with no digressions. The introduction normally closes with the writer's overall opinion of the event (the central opinion), which is, in effect, the thesis of the review.
3. Your coordinating opinion at the end of the introduction must present your considered opinion of the whole experience. Normally this opinion will fall into one of three categories: (a) unequivocal praise (everything is splendidly successful), (b) unequivocal criticism (everything is a mess), and, most commonly, (c) a mixed opinion (some things work well, but there are also some problems). A statement indicating your reaction must appear early in the review (at the end of the first paragraph).
4. Once you have introduced the event and your opinion, in the sequence of paragraphs which follows (the argument), you will discuss one element of the event at a time, seeking to indicate to the reader why you feel about the production the way you do. You will not be able to cover all aspects of the event, so select the three or four most important features which helped to shape your reaction most decisively.
5. Remember that the purpose of the review is not (repeat not) simply to describe the event or the background to it (e.g., to retell the story of the play, to provide details about the paintings, to give a history of the author or the organization sponsoring the event): your task is to describe why you feel about it the way you do. A very common mistake with review assignments is for the writer to digress into all sorts of other matters. So if you find yourself retelling the story of the play or talking at length about the writer or painter or anything not directly relevant to the argument, the review is going astray).
6. Be particularly careful with plays. The review is not a literary interpretation of the text (although that may enter into it briefly). The review is an evaluation of the production, which is an interpretation of the play (note that the terms play and production mean significantly different things: the production is what you are concerned with, so in your review refer to the event as the production, not the play-unless you wish to say something about the script).
7. Discuss only one aspect of the event in each paragraph. Begin the paragraph by announcing how this aspect affected your response (e.g., "One really successful part of this play is the set design, which really brings out well the complex mood of the piece" or "Many of the paintings, however, are not very interesting, with banal subjects very conventionally presented"). Then in the paragraph discuss only that announced subject. Do not change the subject in mid paragraph. If you want to change the subject to discuss another aspect of the event, then start a new paragraph.
8. Once you have introduced the subject of the paragraph, then you must introduce evidence from the show and argue how that evidence shaped your reaction. The quality of the review stems in large part from the way in which you do this. If, for example, you start the paragraph by saying that the supporting actors are not very good, then you must provide evidence (facts) from the production. And that evidence must be detailed (see the next point).
9. The question of detail is all important. For example, if you say something like "The main actress is very good, but the male lead is not up to her standard," you have expressed an opinion, but we need more detail. What does the main actress actually do on stage which makes you think this way about her performance? What does the male lead do or not do which makes you think this way about his performance? Note the difference between the above statements and the following:
The main actress is very good, especially in the way she controls her gestures and her voice at the key moments of the production. This is especially apparent in the final scene, where she sits down throughout, yet manages with the gestures and the controlled anger in her voice to convey fully just what the character is experiencing. The male lead is not up to her standard. He moves much too woodenly and speaks as if he is having trouble remembering his lines. He needs to inject some real feeling into many passages, particularly in his declaration of love in Act II.
10. Notice that in this second example, there is enough detail for the actors whom you are praising and criticizing to understand why you feel the way you do, so that, if they wanted, they could do something about their performances (whereas if all you say is "good" or "not so good" they have very little to go on). Your review will not be successful if you do not get into this sort of detail. This means that you should discuss fewer things in a review than you might want to in order to give a full treatment to what you do discuss.
11. This level of detail applies also when you are reviewing art. Don't just sum up a painter or a work of art with a word or two of general praise or censure. Provide the supplementary details (taken directly from the works you are looking at) so that the reader understands the particulars out of which your opinion arises. What this means, in practice, is that the review should consist of relatively few but substantial paragraphs rather than of many short paragraphs (in a 1000 word review, for example, you might have room for perhaps three paragraphs of argument after the introduction).
12. In organizing the review, you can choose to discuss what you want to. And remember that many things enter into the event apart from the most immediately obvious: the setting (the arrangement of the space), the price, the treatment of the audience or viewing public, the audience, the incidental music, the hanging of the paintings, the acoustics, and so on. At times these might be worthy of mention (if they affected your response significantly). However, some issues are central to the event, and you can hardly choose to ignore them. For instance, in a review of a play, you must make some detailed mention of the acting. In an art show, you must spend considerable space discussing specific paintings (even if you cannot deal with them all). In a review of a musical performance, you must discuss the quality of the playing or singing or both.
13. As you write the review, identify the people involved as you discuss them. "Mona Chisolm, who plays the heroine Janice, is well matched with Brad Ashley, in the role of Fred. . ."; "The direction, by Alice McTavish, is crisp and effective. . ."; "The first violin, Michael Tisdale, has difficulty in some places. . . ." You do not need to identify everyone in the production, but identify those artists you do discuss.
14. It is customary in many reviews to keep to the present tense when you are discussing what is going on in the production (even though you saw it in the past). So, for example, when you discuss what the actors did, keep to the present tense: "In the opening scene the actors seem quite nervous, but they gather confidence as the play progresses. The director needs to pay some attention to improving this part of the production." Similarly, in discussing works of art, stay in the present tense when you are discussing what is in particular works: "The colours in this work clash unexpectedly, but this makes the picture, in a curious way, effective, because it highlights the central focus." Use the past tense to discuss when you saw the play (i.e., in the opening paragraph), but stay in the present tense throughout the discussion of the work or works.
15. It is customary to offer a short conclusion in which you represent your overall opinion, together with some facts about the continuing run of the production.
16. One final piece of advice. A review is much easier to write if you attend the event with some others and discuss what you have seen together immediately after the experience. Your confidence in your own opinions and your command of the particular details needed to back up your feelings will grow fast, if you take the time to discuss your reactions with others.
Sample Short Review of a Dramatic Production
[Note that this is a review of an imaginary production. Pay particular attention to the way in which the writer introduces the review, establishes a central coordinating opinion, deals with one aspect of the production in each paragraph, and provides particular details to support the opinions which appear in the opening of each paragraph. Note also the use of the present tense in discussions of what goes on]
This week at Malaspina University-College Theatre, Mountain Valley Theatre Company is offering its latest production, No Time Like the Present, an engagingly written and, for the most part, successfully delivered comedy with some bitter sweet overtones. The play is something of a gamble for this young company, because the production style is mildly experimental in places, but, in spite of some unevenness in the playing and a few difficulties here and there, the production is well worth seeing.
The main asset in this production is the acting of the leading players. As Montague Jack, a middle-aged drifter down on his luck, Jim Beam provides an entertaining charm and a level of assured skill, both of which establish the character convincingly. His slow drawl and lazy, graceful movements, which explode into an extraordinary athletic energy in the brawl in Act II, keep our attention and provide an important dramatic quality to the production. His performance is matched by Nora Roberts, who plays Alice, the owner of the local saloon. She establishes, above all with her wonderful facial expressions and her gravely voice, an authentic sense of someone who has seen it all but is ready for more. I particularly like the opening conversation between them in Act I, where they both convincingly come across as two experienced road warriors testing each other out in full knowledge of what they are doing. The easy pace and significant physical interaction between them (for example, in the business of the whiskey bottle) evoke the characters and the mood perfectly.
The quality of these two leading players carries the main weight of the experimental dream sequences, when for a moment the action is suspended and we are taken directly into the buried fantasies of people who have almost forgotten how to dream. Ms Roberts is particularly good at conveying the lyrical quality of her monologue: the intense longing in her voice and body movements generates a powerful sexual tension which suddenly illuminates the complexity of a character we may have been tempted to take too lightly. Mr. Beam delivers the goods here, too, although he has less to work with. The quality of his expressions as he works through his memories and hopes is very impressive.
The supporting cast is not up to the quality of the principal players. Too often the acting is rather wooden (particularly in the case of Alan Blake, as the Sheriff, who moves as if he is reluctant to be there and speaks in a monotone). The lesser players seem to have some trouble establishing convincing accents (which move from the Southern States to Ireland and back to New England via Scotland). However, Jennifer Braxton gives a wonderful but all-too-short cameo appearance as Wilma the inebriated singer. The quality of her voice really does suggest that she could deliver the goods if her neurons were all firing correctly, and she refuses to ham up the drunkenness, so that the comedy is always surgically precise (and all the funnier for that).
The direction (by Terry Stapleton) is, for the most part, deft. There are places, however, where the pace needs picking up (for example, in the long scene at the opening of Act II). And the blocking does get occasionally repetitive. Why, one wonders, are the chairs always arranged in the same position? There is room for considerably more visual variety than we get. The slowness of the scene changes is also irritating. However, the comic scenes are well managed, and there is a good deal of very interesting business in the use of various props (e.g., the fake six gun and the old guitar). And I particularly like the way in which the director has controlled the tone of the piece, allowing the ironic resonance to manifest itself without overwhelming the comedy. We really do get a sense of how ridiculous these people are, and yet we also care about them.
The major technical aspects of the production are good. The set (by Ryle Cannon) is splendidly evocative of a seedy old saloon. The colour of the wood and, above all, the floor provide just the right sense of a place which saw its best days long ago. I do wonder a bit about the stuff on the walls; the picture of the football team seems quite out of place and the antlers don't look as if they come from South Texas. Maybe I'm being too picky here. Lighting (by Patricia Foudy) is functional but unexciting (except in the dream sequences where the backlighting is spectacularly effective).
Other aspects of the production, in general, work very well. The costumes (by Christine Thompson) are really splendid, especially the shoes. The incidental music (composed by Claudia Smith and played by Wes Matchoff and Gloria Minoff) provides just the right introduction to the play and adds interest to the excessively lengthy scene changes. Like the production itself, the bluesy-funk style establishes some entertaining ambiguities, and Gloria Minoff's voice is very easy to listen to. I have some reservations about the make up on the older towns people (Mabel Courtenay, in particular), which seems to highlight the fact that these are young actors pretending to be older folks (ditto for the hair).
No Time Like the Present, for all the criticisms one might like to make about this or that aspect of the production, is well worth the price of admission. It will make you laugh and yet leave you wondering about the way in which underneath the laughter there may be, as in much of life, a significant sadness lurking. The production continues its run at Malaspina University-College Theatre for the next two weeks.
[Back to Table of Contents] [Back to johnstonia Home Page]
Page loads on johnstonia web files